Lawrence Toppman

Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad party together in heaven

This illustration comes from a medieval Qur’an in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s unmissable “Jerusalem” exhibit
This illustration comes from a medieval Qur’an in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s unmissable “Jerusalem” exhibit

The painting with this column has no title; the one in the headline is my own. It comes from a medieval Qur’an, the holiest book in the Islamic religion, and you can see it through Jan. 8 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in an extraordinary exhibit. (If you can’t go, you can see some of the objects and listen to the audio guide online.)

“Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven” depicts art from three great religions for whom that city remains the center of the faith: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (I list those in order of chronology, not importance.) This is my favorite piece of art from that extraordinary show.

Look closely at this picture. After you get past the horse with a human head – he’s Buraq, a steed in Islamic myths who transported the prophets – you notice that the three main figures seem to be on fire. Christian painters of the period depicted saints with golden halos; Muslims used flames.

The Jewish prophet Abraham and the Christian prophet Jesus (for so Muslims would call them) are welcoming Muhammad to heaven. The women on the left, houris promised to the devout by the Qur’an, await the founder of that religion.

This small painting makes nonsense of two assertions. Fanatics of one kind insist today that Islam does not allow images of Muhammad, but he showed up in Islamic art for a millennium after his death. And fanatics of another kind would claim the three faiths can never meet on a common ground.

All the art of this exhibit comes from the period of the Crusades, when control of the Holy Land went back and forth between Christians and Muslims. Even then, the three People of the Book (as they were and are known) had much in common. Both Jews and Muslims honor Jesus as an interpreter of God’s teachings, and Islam frequently depicts his mother with respect.

The intricately designed Christian crosses, haggadahs (Jewish prayer books containing the Passover service) and Qur’ans in this exhibit can be appreciated partly for their visual beauty and partly for their sacred significance.

“Jerusalem” doesn’t ignore the violence of the era: It displays censers and swords, in a mix of piety and political power. But it mostly reminds us how much we’d have in common, if we truly studied and applied the ideas of the God we share.

Toppman: 704-358-5232